If you're looking for just the "right" glittering bauble for a loved one this holiday season, it might make good financial sense to seek out vintage costume jewelry.
With luck, you may unearth a valuable piece for a pittance at a flea market, garage sale or estate sale because the previous owner was unaware of its actual worth. Regions away from the nation's biggest cities feature considerably lower prices.
Judicious shopping at a trusted dealer, retailer or auction house could also result in a beautiful item from the past that is likely to reward its owner with a gain in value. Many pieces that cost pennies in the old days are still relatively inexpensive, while glitzy items featured in films and plays are scarce and costly.
Though many prices tumbled as much as one-third in 1993 and early 1994 after nine years of remarkable gains, the collectible costume jewelry market is staging a comeback. These imitations constructed of nonprecious metals and stones are the result of craftsmanlike stamping, gluing, enameling and soldering no longer found in modern pieces.
"It's an investment, for in another 20 years I'm convinced this jewelry we're selling from the 1930s, '40s, '50s and '60s will have quadrupled in price," said Norma Price, owner of Heritage Costume Jewelry in Chicago.
Rhinestone jewelry, plastic Bakelite pieces, celluloid bracelets, tremblant jewelry (set on a spring, so that part of the piece "trembles") and couture designer pieces from the 1930s and 1940s are the most in-demand costume items these days.
A 1950s HAR snake bracelet, worth $5 just a decade ago, commands $350. A 1950s Nettie Rosenstein tremblant dragonfly brooch has brought $230, while a 1960s Kenneth Jay Lane choker with beads and rhinestones is $200.
Going higher in value, a Wiener Werkstatte beaded sautoir (long necklace ending in a tassel or fringe) sold at auction for $2,500 and a 1941 swan-shaped Trifari brooch brought $5,000.
"When I graduated from college in the mid-1980s, the new wave look was in and that required a lot of rhinestone jewelry, which started my costume jewelry obsession," explained Michelle Iaci, a 32-year-old Seattle secretary who collects costume jewelry, buying mostly at antique malls and garage sales. "I purchased a two-inch, multicolored, 1950s Hollycraft pastel rhinestone brooch in 1986 for $35, and it's worth $100."
Some collectibles feature superior style and workmanship. Names such as Hobe, Eisenberg, Weiss, Givenchy, Christian Dior, Miriam Haskell, Boucher, Schiaparelli, Nettie Rosenstein, Hattie Carnegie, Trifari, Monet, Ciner, Kramer of New York, Coro and Mazer are some of the most sought-after.
"Before you buy costume jewelry, consider whether it has beauty, originality and workmanship, no matter whether it's stone, metal or sterling," counseled Norman Crider, America's leading vintage costume jewelry dealer with a store located in New York's Trump Tower. "We'll be seeing more and more popularity of European costume jewelry designs in the future, but good old American jewelry will also continue."
Find a reputable dealer you trust. Always buy the best example in the best condition. Avoid damaged or repaired pieces. Seeking out "sleeper" deals isn't as easy as it once was.
"Costume jewelry is becoming more scarce and you can't find quite as many items as you used to," warned Lucille Tempesta, co-editor of the Vintage Fashion and Costume Jewelry Newsletter Club, whose quarterly publication costs $15 annually (P.O. Box 265-AL, Glen Oaks, N.Y. 11004).
"The price of plastic costume jewelry, called Bakelite, from the 1930s and 1940s has come up fast since 1985 and includes necklaces, bracelets and earrings in a variety of shapes," said Nancy Schiffer, publisher of Schiffer Publishing in Altglen, Pa., which offers a number of books on costume jewelry. "There's a Bakelite necklace with cherries that was worth less than $50 in 1985 and now is worth $200 to $300."
Books published by Schiffer Publishing include "Forties & Fifties Popular Jewelry" by Roseann Ettinger and "The Best of Costume Jewelry" by Ms. Schiffer herself.
Don't get taken. "To be sure of authenticity, you can buy signed American pieces that are pretty easy to date," advised Caroline Rennold Milbank, fashion historian and consultant to the William Doyle Galleries in New York, which recently conducted a costume jewelry auction.
"Get an item authenticated, for a few weeks ago I saw my first blatant fake -- a brooch with a plaque on it that had the designer name Schiaparelli -- and the name was misspelled."